Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why it matters

Though I'm far from exhausting the issue of Biblical inspiration, I think it might be useful to turn aside for a moment and look at why I'm going down this road at all. I already stated at the outset that one primary reason is that we have no business making a doctrinal-level claim that cannot be conclusively supported on Biblical texts alone. That is, if the Bible itself does not define itself as the word of God (and I contend it does not), then we have no business so defining it.

Nevertheless there is another reason to which I have alluded several times: Many (perhaps most) of the doctrines taught in our churches today, are based on a few Biblical passages--even single verses--taken out of their larger context and expanded into complex theologies. (I should clarify here that I use the term "doctrine" not in the literal sense of the Greek didache, which is simply "teaching," but rather in the more-common English sense of basically a synonym of "dogma:" that is, a proposition to which the believer is asked--or even required--to give intellectual assent).

By contrast, the passages highlighted in both Old and New Testaments as the "word of God" tend to have a great deal more to do with how we live, than what we think (I know, this brings up works-vs-faith salvation for many of you. I'll address that in a few days). Particularly with the prophets, but also in Jesus' own words, we learn a great deal about what makes God happy, and what pisses him off. A reasonable person, reading these words, would probably conclude that making God happy is a good thing, while upsetting him, not so much. It's not rocket science.

Let's look at a couple of examples. According to at least one source, the Bible references money over 800 times, and whether his numbers are correct or not, he's on the right track. Quite a few such references are by Jesus himself, or in the prophetic "thus saith the Lord" passages I referred to in my prior post. Even a cursory survey of such verses gives us a pretty good clue what God thinks about money: we shouldn't be driven by it, we should be careful not to harm others in the acquisition/use of it, it easily becomes an idol, etc. In other words, taking these passages seriously leads to ACTION: doing some things, and not doing others.

On the other hand, the contention that God knows the whole future (whether because of his planning or simply divine foreknowledge), while not absent from the Bible, is much less common. Though I have yet to do a full survey of the subject, I strongly suspect that:
  • It's mentioned a lot less than 800 times and probably less than 100
  • Mention of God's foreknowledge generally (not exclusively) is not in the "thus saith the Lord" parts of the Bible so much as in literature of other types
  • Most importantly, it does not occur in passages--regardless of who's talking--that carry an expectation of behavior that would change because of God's knowledge.
It is this last point I would emphasize the most strongly. Whether or not one believes (as in, gives intellectual assent to the proposition) that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of events that will happen is an entirely intellectual mind game, while on the other hand, whether or not one believes (as in recognizes it matters to God) in the Biblical view of money can and must have a direct impact on our behavior.

Nevertheless, I have heard more teaching on God's omniscience than I have on God's opinion about economic justice. If you attend (or know someone who attends) an American evangelical church (maybe a lot of other churches too), I'll bet you've been exposed to a similar imbalance. This is one way the church grossly misrepresents the God it claims to worship.

When God actually took the time to speak, and to make clear to his hearers that he was speaking, it was not to get their "doctrines" as we use that term, in order. It was to get them to do something or to stop doing something else. Perhaps the greatest violence that theology has done to the faith of Jesus, is by re-defining faith as a mental exercise in believing propositions, more than a lifestyle of discipleship. Though this redefinition has many roots, I believe one of the keys has been the misapplication of the "word of God" imprimatur to the Biblical canon, which in turn resulted in theologians feeling the compulsion to tease out the meanings of isolated phrases and concepts found in every corner of the text.

Years ago I was given a quotation that I have since lost, which says it best. I believe that the author may have been one of the Blumhardts, but sadly I cannot say for sure, and so far Google has been useless in turning it up. If anyone can help me with a citation I shall be grateful:

"God's word is given in order that we shall act in accordance with it, not that we shall practice the art of interpreting obscure passages."

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